Dear Prudence

Help! I Think I’m in Love With My Brother’s Boring Wife.

I doubt that she’s my soulmate, but I feel like she is.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by kazuma seki/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns.

Dear Prudence,

You know how some people are fine, absolutely unobjectionable, but you just don’t click with them? You don’t dislike them, but you don’t much like them either—you just don’t think about them much at all. That’s how I’ve always felt about my sister-in-law, “Janice.” She was kind of dull and a bit smug, but my brother loved her. I passed her the gravy at Thanksgiving and was glad I didn’t have to spend the rest of the year with her. Well, now I’m in love with her, and while it’s not directly connected, her marriage to my brother is in trouble. (For the record, I doubt that Janice is my soulmate. We’re badly suited, whereas she and my brother are usually a power team-up. It’s just a whole bunch of stuff at once, and then the pandemic, that’s heightened everything. But I feel like she’s my soulmate.)

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I had a really bad car accident a few years ago, lost my job, got dumped, and developed a drinking problem. When I hit rock bottom, my family was there for me, but it was Janice who stepped up the most, who let me cry on her shoulder, who drove me to my physio appointments. So now, lonely, desperate for affection, and still all banged up, I am in love. And it looks like my brother and Janice are going through something. There’s a terrible part of me, maybe 5 percent, that wants to take advantage of it. But the rest of me wants to be a good friend, a good in-law, and a good brother. I’m not sure how to navigate this without making things weird, damaging my family relationships, or possibly taking advantage of the situation to get what I want. Should I tell Janice how I feel and then distance myself? Distance myself and just look like I’m ungrateful for all her help? Pretend to be disinterested and just play the role of good brother-in-law?

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The first thing to do is refocus on the support you can draw from sources that aren’t your brother’s wife, not because you need to start ignoring her as a matter of principle, but because you need more than one person you can rely on for help. That might mean asking others to drive you to your appointments, looking for 12-step recovery meetings (or non-12-step alternatives), crying on a rotating cast of shoulders, and seeking out ways to help others when you can.

It’s not my place to tell you whether you are or aren’t in love with Janice. Perhaps more importantly, love can sometimes be accompanied by self-interest, or neediness, or dislike, even contempt. But you seem fairly aware that your newfound love for Janice didn’t arise from reevaluating those qualities of her you dislike or a desire to care for her the way your brother does, so much as an overwhelming sense of gratitude for her care and attention in your moment of crisis. That doesn’t make a strong foundation for a committed romantic relationship.

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Prioritizing non-Janice emotional outlets will make it easier to find ways to step back from her (possible) marital crisis without suddenly going cold and ignoring all of her calls. Don’t punish her for being kind to you by withdrawing, or by burdening her with an unexpected announcement that you’re kind of in love with her, even though you still sort of don’t like her, and don’t think you two are suited for each other anyway. (I’m reminded of Mr. Darcy’s first ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet: “ ‘I might as well inquire,’ replied she, ‘why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?’ ”) Trust that she has friends and family of her own she can turn to for advice and counsel who are better-suited than her husband’s brother to help her with whatever problems she may be facing in her marriage. Ask yourself if part of your desire to stir the pot comes from any resentment toward the rest of your family for not “stepping up” the way Janice did when you hit rock bottom, and find a therapist if you still can’t shake that 5 percent of you that wants to see if you can get an affair going. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! I Think I’m in Love With My Brother’s Wife.” (Aug. 8, 2020)

Dear Prudence,

I didn’t have a father when I was growing up due to my being the result of a long-term affair. Finally, when I became a teenager I met my half siblings and their mother. They have all accepted me, and I am grateful for our relationships, which have continued even though my father died a few years ago. At the same time, I always held a grudge against my mom for doing something so immoral, even though she was always there for me. My mom told me what she did was wrong but that you can’t help whom you love. I am now a single woman in my 20s. I work for a great company and have a good work ethic and positive morals. Yet for the past three months I have been having an affair with a married co-worker. This is so wrong, but the connection we have is so much more than I have ever dreamed of experiencing. I feel disgusted with myself and cry constantly about the situation. Still, I can’t bring myself to stop seeing him. He tells me he loves me and contemplates leaving his wife. (They have no children.) I love him but could never live with myself if I broke up their marriage, especially after the heartache I endured as a child. Please help me do the right thing before it’s too late.

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Because you are the child of infidelity does not mean you are condemned to repeat it, unless, in the face of your own epic, forbidden love, you now say, “I guess my mother wasn’t such a hussy after all. It’s true that you just can’t help whom you love.” Your mother was right that we all can be slaves to our emotions, though she was wrong to decree that there’s nothing you can do except indulge them. But that’s exactly how you sound. You want this man, but you couldn’t bear to actually have him. You have never experienced such soul-stirring connection, yet you weep with disgust. There’s nothing I can say that will make the situation less painful—it’s up to you to conclude that as thrilling as all the sex, conversation, and subterfuge has been, you’re going to stop. It’s as simple as declaring, “You’re married and I’m not going to see you anymore.” Try shifting your focus to the practical: You have launched a promising career; it’s not going to be enhanced by having an affair with a married co-worker. Because of your mother’s choices, you grew up longing for a man you couldn’t have. Consider talking about this with a counselor so that you don’t spend your life searching for more of the same. —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! I Hate Beards, but My Husband Refuses To Shave.” (Dec. 29, 2011)

Dear Prudence,

I have been dating a terrific guy, “Jason,” for about five months now (we’re both dudes, if it matters). He’s everything I’ve been looking for but there’s a problem: He has an Xtube page up. I introduced him to my friend “Bob,” who is an avid watcher of online porn. Bob later told me about the page and sent me the link to it. (I made Bob promise not to tell anyone; he’s a great friend and I’m not worried about him spreading the word.) Basically it’s nine videos of Jason masturbating with his face showing in a few of them. I was mortified seeing the videos and cried privately. I don’t know what to do. This is the best relationship I’ve been in in years. Jason is attentive and caring and is interested in taking our union further, but I don’t know if I can ever trust him. I’m not interested in having a boyfriend whose naughty bits are on display for the whole world to see! If it matters he apparently hasn’t logged on or uploaded any new videos to his porn page in over a year. What should I do?

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I’m not sure why you feel like you can’t trust him. What about his having masturbated in front of a camera a few years ago has rendered him untrustworthy? I can understand feeling uncomfortable, certainly, and wondering whether you two are compatible in terms of how you view privacy, but trustworthiness doesn’t seem to be an issue here. There’s nothing untrustworthy about jerking off for an audience. If you think you can have a conversation with Jason about this (without accusing him of hiding something from you or of being an untrustworthy person), then tell him what you found, ask him if he’d be comfortable removing the videos, and have a serious conversation about what you both think about privacy. On the other hand, if you honestly don’t believe you can date someone who has ever had an Xtube page, no matter what the circumstances, then do Jason a favor and end your relationship before it gets serious. —D.L.

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From: “Help! My Boyfriend Uploaded Videos of Himself to a Porn Site.” (March 29, 2016)

Dear Prudence,

I asked my husband to take our ailing rat to the veterinarian to be euthanized last Thursday. The rat was almost 2 years old and had a tumor on its mouth, but it was still a friendly animal that was so gentle. When I came home from work, he said he had “taken care of it.” It turns out he froze the rat in our deep freeze. I have been crying and grieving over this all weekend. We are barely speaking. He loves animals and didn’t think this would hurt the rat. He later apologized to me via text message. I am heartbroken. I am trying to be forgiving, but this is so awful that I don’t even feel like I can reach out to friends to discuss it. How do I get past this?

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I can understand your giving the very cold shoulder to a husband who decides to save on a vet bill by sticking an ailing pet in the freezer. It would be impossible to respond to such awful news with sangfroid. (The fact that most people consider your dear late pet to be a kind of vermin to be exterminated is irrelevant.) Please tell me the rat has now been properly dealt with—I’d hate to think of your visiting mother going to the deep freeze to retrieve a lasagna and … let’s not think about it. Your husband has apologized via text, so now you have to let the man speak to you. Let’s hope he’s abjectly remorseful and doesn’t try to make excuses for gross animal cruelty. I agree this is just not something that lends itself to hashing out with friends. Ideally, your husband can convince you it was a dreadful anomaly. And maybe you get over this by getting a new rat (shudder) together. —E.Y.

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From: “Help! My Husband Put Our Dying Pet Rat in the Freezer.” (Sept. 9, 2015)

More Advice From Dear Prudence

Last year, I lent my brother an expensive piece of photography equipment. After a few months, his wife sold it on eBay; I didn’t find out about it until I asked for it back for a project. He apologized and said it was an accident (she thought the equipment was his). He offered to buy a replacement, but I said there was no need. Fast forward a year later, my brother asked me to borrow another piece of equipment.

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